The Best Paleo Carbohydrates

Almost every health expert today has a different strategy regarding which carbohydrates should be consumed for optimal health. Some experts advocate low-carb dieting yet others believe that carbohydrates are the very foundation of a heart-healthy diet. In the midst of these divergent approaches, it is important to remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Despite this limitation, I have found one simple rule that does apply to everyone! This simple, yet powerful rule, will end your carb confusion and improve your health immediately in dramatic ways. But first, let’s discuss what carbohydrates are and why we need them.

Carbohydrates are a class of organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are found primarily in plants and are produced by photosynthesis. The main role of carbohydrates in our diet is to provide us with a quick source of glucose, our body’s main source of energy. There are many different types of carbohydrates each composed of chains of sugar molecules of various lengths.

Carbohydrates are broken down at different rates based on their variable structure. Typically, carbohydrates composed of shorter chains of sugar molecules are broken down more quickly. However there are other important variables to consider, such as refinement, which will we discuss briefly. 

The rate at which a carbohydrate is broken down is important because the concentration of sugar within our blood stream influences our health profoundly. Our body requires a steady steam of sugar (glucose) in order to function. However, excessive blood sugar levels can be dangerous.

Excessive blood sugar levels can cause inflammation, glycation, mood issues, weight gain, cravings, energy fluctuations and eventual circulatory problems. Chronically elevated blood sugar is also implicated in degenerative diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s (aka. type 3 diabetes). Because of the risks, our bodies are obsessed with maintaing a narrow bandwidth of blood sugar twenty four hours per day. If this complex system becomes taxed too frequently, however, it can stop functioning efficiently. This is when degenerative conditions take hold. To help avoid this, it is wise to choose carbohydrates that have a minimal blood sugar impact.

Fortunately, the glycemic load, helps make this easy by quantifying the blood sugar impact of various foods. Carbohydrates are assigned a “low (1-10),” “moderate (11-19),” or “high, (20+)” glycemic load based on two criteria: The amount of a carbohydrate in food and its impact on blood sugar. Although your specific blood sugar response will be highly individual, this tool can serve as a basic framework.

Here are a few examples of each category from Harvard’s website:

Low Glycemic Load: 

Green vegetables

Medium Glycemic Load:

Brown Rice
Whole-grain bread
Whole-grain pasta


High Glycemic Load: 

Baked potato
French fries
Breakfast cereal
Sugar sweetened beverages
Candy bars
Cous cous 

Although you could spend hours memorizing the glycemic load index, there is also a far more simple way to ensure you’re consuming minimal impact carbohydrates.

When you look closely at the examples above, 2 important points emerge….

1. Whole foods, fruits and vegetables tend to have a low glycemic impact

2. Refined and processed foods have a high glycemic load


In case you’re not yet familiar with the term “refined” or “processed,” 

Processed foods = foods that have been altered in any way, other than cooking, from their journey from the ground, tree or barn and to your table. Examples of processed foods include bread, candy, cookies, sugary drinks, cereal, french fries and baked goods. 

Food processing is utilized because it increases the shelf life of a food. Food processing also removes many of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes and phytonutrients that make whole foods so nutritious. Without these vital components, processed foods become little more than rapidly absorbed sources of sugar. As we discussed earlier, rapidly absorbed sugar can be very dangerous for your health. Fortification cannot redeem these foods, either. The added vitamins and minerals are synthetic and are not used in the same way by your body. Therefore, food processing is only beneficial for food manufacturers and not the consumer. All processed carbohydrates should be avoided.

It may come as a surprise given our USDA's dietary recommendations, but whole grains should also be avoided for many reasons. First, grains are often refined. According to Dr. William Davis, whole grains can also cause blood sugar surges more excessive than table sugar! Many grains (wheat, oats, barley, rye, spelt, kamut) also contain gluten, a damaging protein that is problematic for many individuals. Finally, calorie for calorie, grains are not particularly nutrient dense foods. I highly recommend eliminating them which makes room for more nutrient dense foods in your diet.

The Moral of the Story:

The MOST paleo carbohydrates are none other than those consumed by our ancestors for millions of years: Fruits and vegetables. They have a minimal impact on blood sugar and are teeming with antioxidant, phytonutrients, minerals and fiber that nourish our bodies. By sticking to nature, we no longer have to rely on carbohydrate counts or the glycemic index. Above all else, always choose Mother Nature constructed, nutrient-dense, whole food carbohydrates in the form of fruits and vegetables!. Plain and simple.

It’s also important to note that a perfect carbohydrate ratio does not exist. Our ancestors consumed highly variable carbohydrate ratios based on availability and geography. We are also biochemically unique individuals with distinct metabolic needs that change daily. Your ideal carbohydrate ratio will only be elucidated by daily self experimentation.

I do not necessarily advocate a low carbohydrate diet for everyone, either. While they are undeniably valuable for individuals suffering from diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and other neurological conditions, they aren’t necessarily beneficial for everyone. 

Even though change can be overwhelming, start small. Try adding one or two whole foods into your diet each day. Soon, you will notice BIG changes and over time you will actually prefer the taste of whole foods. I promise. 

Even if you’re not there today, you are only a few mindful dietary decisions away. 

Here’s to keeping your health thriving with whole-food carbohydrates 😊

Happy Paleo-ing,

Autumn Smith